There was a time, and not so very long ago, when you bought an original cast album and — unless you left it overnight on the radiator, or mistook it for a chopping block — that was that. But then came the age of the compact disc. Nowadays, those same old original cast albums tend to come back, in new-and-improved editions, again and again.
But this is not simply a case of recycling. By scouring the archives in creative ways, CD producers have refreshed old cast albums with long-lost songs and other fascinating material.
Take Tony-winning Best Musical South Pacific, for example. The 1949 original cast album is one of the best-selling LPs of all time, with a score stocked with beloved songs many of us know by heart. Put on the recent CD reissue [Sony Classical SK 60722], and there you have Mary Martin singing "Loneliness of Evening" and "His Girl Back Home" — two songs cut along the road to Broadway! Not part of the classic show as we know it, true; but songs written by Rodgers & Hammerstein for the same characters at the same time that they wrote "Some Enchanted Evening" and "A Wonderful Guy" and the rest.
Other recent CDs include numerous highlights. Fiddler on the Roof, on the reissue of the London cast album [Sony Classical SK 89546], contains 12 minutes worth of early tapes of composer Jerry Bock working at the piano. "I just hit something that I'm very happy about, it gives me the spirit of the girls on a flirting idea," he says to his lyricist as he records the first playing of the music that became "Sunrise, Sunset." The CD also presents Bock and Sheldon Harnick performing an early song about chicken plucking and liver chopping, which transmuted into the Fiddler Theme.
My Fair Lady [Sony Classical SK 89997], another Best Musical, features two interviews with the songwriters (including some material that veers towards what today's listeners might consider chauvinistically offensive). Composer Frederick Loewe explains how he had to alter his melody to suit non-singer Rex Harrison, demonstrating how he'd write "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" for a baritone.
Cabaret [Sony Classical SK 60533] includes John Kander and Fred Ebb performing four lost songs, one of which — the affecting "I Don't Care Much" — proved a highlight when reinstated in the Tony-winning 1998 revival.
"Mermania!" [Harbinger HCD 1711] a compilation of recordings discovered in Ethel Merman's closet after her death, includes the star rehearsing eight songs from Gypsy (with early lyrics). Also on this disc are "Love, Look in My Window" and "World, Take Me Back," two songs added to Hello, Dolly! when Merman joined the cast and sold as a 45 R.P.M. single in the lobby.
Sweet Charity [Sony Classical SK 60960] includes an extended interview taped at the opening-night party, including this fascinating interchange. Interviewer to four-time Tony-winning star: "Were you nervous before the show?" Gwen Verdon: "No."
Nine [Sony Classical S2K 86858] has been expanded to a two-CD set, allowing inclusion of virtually the entire show. Home demo recordings from composer Maury Yeston present a significantly different take on the material, which won five Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Score.
How many times, some consumers have not-unreasonably asked, are we supposed to buy the same beloved recordings? What's the difference? And is the difference worth it?
Sound quality, of course, is the cornerstone of the compact disc. The CD was introduced in the United States in 1983, and by the end of the decade had all but replaced the LP (long-playing) record. Even the earliest CDs were a sonic step above LPs, to be sure; but continuing technological advances have improved the remastering process again and again. This is especially relevant when dealing with older cast albums of the forties and early fifties, which were primitively recorded. A current-day cast album will be recorded in a state-of-the-art studio, with a separate microphone for each musician and each performer. The aforementioned South Pacific was recorded with the musicians assembled on the empty stage of the Colonial Theatre, with one microphone hanging overhead. The singers lined up in front of the band, with one standing mic of their own.
"The remastering process 12 years ago, say, is inferior to what we can do today," explained Brian Drutman, senior director of Decca Broadway. "If it's an evergreen that's going to stay in the catalogue for a generation, why not get it out in the best sound we can?"
Each successive CD reissue — and some cast albums have had as many as four in the 20 years since the first discs entered the store — has sounded better. But not always better enough to warrant purchasing a cast album that you already had on CD (and, perhaps, on LP as well). After a while, the promise of remastered masters and expanded liner notes wasn't necessarily enough to convince skeptical buyers who had bought it the last time. The labels issuing these CDs soon learned, though, that the inclusion of additional material — bonus tracks, in the parlance of the trade — made their old product a newer one, relatively. Bonus tracks, which at one point were true rarities, are nowadays regularly included on cast album reissues.
The earliest bonus tracks were bonuses, indeed. The technological limitations of the LP limited recordings to less than 25 minutes a side. Classic cast albums like Gypsy had whittled down some longer numbers to fit within the grooves, while others — Fiddler on the Roof, for example — were forced to delete entire songs. With the present-day CD clocking in at more than 70 minutes, producers have gone back to the original session tapes for recorded-but-unreleased material.
"When there was something that didn't make the first issue of the album," said Bill Rosenfield, who for many years oversaw the RCA Catalog, "I tried to find out the reason it didn't make it. A legal issue, running time, a bad take, or 'who needed it?' were usually the reasons. However, there were also fanatics out there who knew of stuff that had been recorded and demanded that they be added. The other issue was that additional tracks meant additional royalties. If you added songs, costs were higher; but if you didn't add songs, fewer people would buy it because it was probably an album that they already had."
Original cast material has also been supplemented by demo (demonstration) recordings. These include songs cut from the show, usually performed by the songwriters in typically scratchy renditions, recorded in extreme low fidelity. These tracks prove fascinating, enhancing our understanding of the shows, the authors and the process.
Musical theatre enthusiasts are currently being treated to a treasure trove of new old material from the justly celebrated Stephen Sondheim. "Sondheim Sings" [PS Classics PS 9529] features private recordings of the composer demonstrating his work. Numerous favorites are here, like "Broadway Baby" and "Send in the Clowns"; also included are songs lost in Philly, Boston and Baltimo', like "Multitudes of Amys" from Company, "The Lame, the Halt and the Blind" from Anyone Can Whistle, and the truly delectable "Truly Content" from Passionella.
The major record companies have yet to reissue a vintage cast album without claiming that the new edition is without doubt the very finest, vastly improved and unquestionably indispensable. Yes, the sound is audibly enhanced, in many cases remarkably so. But it is the long-lost, archival bonus tracks that often merit the laudatory claims, and justify adding the new disc to the already overburdened CD rack.
Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "A Must See: Brilliant Broadway Artwork," the forthcoming "Second Act Trouble," and a columnist for Playbill.com.